Vipassana – vaguely sensational.

Two weeks before Christmas I went on a 10 day silent retreat on a former farm in Hereford. Or, as one friend describes it, Meditation Boot Camp. It certainly was tough but now I’ve had a few weeks to recover and to see the effects in everyday life I think it was definitely worth it. Lots of people asked me about it so I thought I’d write a short summary.

To give you a little background I have been meditating daily for the past year and a half and I am a research psychologist with a professional interest in mindfulness. (In fact we even recorded my brainwaves before and after the course but more on that later.)

My own self-taught meditation had gone quite well. I had managed at least a few minutes every day for over a year. I’d enjoyed it and it seemed to have some wonderful if nebulous benefits. It’s no secret that secret to success in meditation is more meditation. To make progress you need to put in practice. But whenever I had tried to sit for more than half an hour at a time I usually fell asleep or, worse, found myself on the internet. But I’m a dangerous combination of intense, optimistic and credulous so the idea of being forced to do nothing but sit and ‘do nothing’ held a strange appeal.

And that is what the Vipassana trust organise: 10 day long residential courses teaching you Vipassana style meditation in a monastic environment where you have nothing to do but practice. In the spirit of Buddhist dhamma, it is completely free. Participants are welcome to donate after they have completed the course. Your donations will fund the course for future students but you are under no obligation and your own course is a gift.

Once I mentioned I was doing it a surprising number of people came out of the woodwork to say they’d done it too. The universal theme to their advice was, it is very tough but don’t whatever you do give up.

So what is it?

Well, this is what they tell you in the preamble to the ‘code of discipline’ you must follow while you are there:

“Vipassana is one of India’s most ancient meditation techniques. Long lost to humanity, it was rediscovered by Gotama the Buddha more than 2500 years ago. The word Vipassana means seeing things as they really are. It is the process of self- purification by self-observation. One begins by observing the natural breath to concentrate the mind. With a sharpened awareness one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind and experiences the universal truths of impermanence, suffering and egolessness. This truth-realization by direct experience is the process of purification. The entire path (Dhamma) is a universal remedy for universal problems and has nothing to do with any organized religion or sectarianism.”

Okaaay… But what is it really?

Gongs! lots of them.. borrow from NuminousMusic
Gongs! lots of them..image borrowed from NuminousMusic

Well, it is a surprisingly large group of people, about 160 of us, all trying to do the same thing on our own. Which is basically sitting on your butt trying not to fall asleep and/or hallucinate. Lots of sitting. The daily routine was 10+ hours of meditation a day and a total of 12 hours sitting on your butt. The first gong rang at 4am each morning. And then the day went a little like this

04:30 – 06:30 Meditation
08:00 – 11:00 Meditation
13:00 – 17:00 Meditation
18:00 – 21:00 Meditation + 1hr Teachers video instruction

There were quite a lot of gongs but even more silence. This took a bit of getting used. That’s what the first 3 days were all about: Keeping silent and coping with it.

From 8pm on the evening we arrived we weren’t allowed to talk, whisper or even use sign language. We were not to interact. For a few minutes this is slightly weird. But not longer more than that. Everyone else is doing it so you do too. You get used to it quickly and you get by. The whole place is set up so that you don’t have to speak. You have your own (shared) bedroom, your own meditation cushion and all your meals and decisions are made for you. There is fixed timetable, there are lots of gongs to keep you too it and printed signs everywhere reminding you what to do where. There were returning meditators who act as volunteers to cook all your meals. And two who volunteer as managers for the men’s world and two for the women’s.

That was something that took a bit more getting used to. Men and women were separated. It took a while to sink in. There less you could about than it than the self-imposed silence. The two groups were physically segregated from first evening and that was that. In a way we’re the weird ones for finding it strange. Most other people in the last 2500 years would find nothing unusual about it especially in a monastic setting.

The reasons for all of this are to do with the silence. They make silence easier. And silence is important, Noble even! You are removing everything that stops you from dealing with yourself. Interactions and even imagined interactions have a way of echoing around in our brains. That’s part of the noise that a silent retreat is trying to eliminate. (And did I mention that your mobile phone and all reading and writing materials are handed in the moment you arrive? Same reason.)

So for the first three days, you sit silently on your own individual cushion trying to pay very close attention to your own breath coming out of your nose. It’s hard, you need all that time to start to get the hang of it. Ignoring the coughs and rustles of others, ignoring your body’s constant demands to be moved, trying not to fall asleep, ignoring your wittering stream of consciousness. But you do gradually settle down and you can tell that so does everyone else.

You settle into a routine. Each day the pattern was essentially the same. Your food and shuffling about followed the same hours and paths. And your time on the cushion is in longer and longer periods of concentration. Each session you try and fail to keep focused on your own breathing. Over and over you fail. But you have nothing else to do but to try again. So you do. And you get a little better. And then you fail, and you seem to lose it. But you start over a bit more and now you seem to have the hang of it. And just then they make it harder..

Each evening right after the video lecture and just before we can finally stop for the day there is one final quick meditation in which they introduce some new knack to acquire. And for that short burst it seems quite easy. You go to be bed happy.

But at 4:30 the next morning it no longer seems so easy. In fact, you spend much of the next recapturing what you thought you’d mastered. It is rather frustrating but it is not as if there’s anything else you could be doing. And what would be the alternative, that it was easy? Nothing good ever came for free*, etc, etc.

So what is it that you are learning?

On the fourth day, after we have all settled down, we start to learn actual the Vipassana technique. The word vipassana originally means something like ‘clear-sighted’, it describes the goal rather than the technique itself. It is, they claim, what did Buddha do to become the Buddha. We all know he sat and meditated but how did he meditate? By doing Vipassana. I won’t try and describe exactly what that entails as I am not qualified and don’t want to mislead you but it can be sketched in a single sentence (or two):

Mentally scan over your body paying attention to each part in turn. Then repeat over and over and over. Try to stay still, don’t ignore aches, pains, tickles but don’t obsess over them either. Keep your mind calm but your attention constantly moving.

This surprised me. I thought we would be learning to hold our attention fixed on a single point. I imagined we would be building super powers of concentration and focus. It isn’t much like that. You are learning something deceptively simple that, given time, promises remarkable results. You are not supposed to embark on some inward journey. Quite the opposite you remain anchored to reality. That is the point. You are supposed to be learning more about reality actually is.

Give me a bit more theory.

As luck would have it the evening video-lectures explain a bit more of the theory. Actually, it’s not luck. The whole course is very cleverly designed and the lectures are an integral part of it. They were recorded in 1991 by the populariser of Vipassana S.N. Goenka. He’s an interesting character, responsible for bringing the Vipassana style of meditation from Burma back to India and beyond.

Mr. Goenka is an entertaining and eloquent speaker. The structure and sequence of the talks is very cleverly constructed. Each one builds on the last and reflects upon what you’ve been doing that day. He addresses the physical challenges we are all facing in trying to sit perfectly still. He knows all the thoughts and doubts that are likely to go through beginners minds. He tells you why, in Buddhist terms, it is supposed to work and shares plenty of stories and parables from the life of Buddha. He tells quite a few good jokes.

But for me these were the hardest parts. Because these talks are suppose to be suitable for anyone it means that he can also be very long-winded and repetitive. There are also plenty of parts that feel very dated. But perhaps that is the very least you’d expect from a 2500 year old technique/tradition that is still in use today. One has to try and look beyond the anachronisms and realise that anything with that long and steady a history probably has something going for it.

I chose to see this as another test of one’s equanimity. And to be fair to them, they are not too dogmatic about whether you believe in all the crap about reincarnation, sub-atomic vibrations, etc.

Try meditating, see if it helps, it probably will if you’re patient and persistent.

I certainly felt it working and I didn’t need to sign up to any supernatural beliefs. (If you’d like to learn more about meditation without the religion, I highly recommend Sam Harris’ new book Waking Up.) And remember a lot of the contents of those lectures aren’t aimed at you. Mr. Goenka is trying to tell a story that works equally well for the poorest peasant in India as for the most privileged and arrogant westerner. And he largely succeeds. Sure, he says a few daft things and there is one moment right near the end where he says something of astounding self-importance. But on the whole, I’d challenge anyone to do it better.

There is a lot of chanting! That they could probably lose. Come in to the meditation hall at the wrong time it looks exactly like a cult 🙂

How does it work?

This is my cognitive neuroscientist’s off the cuff answer (That is, these are just hunches, I haven’t validated them). There are two main aspects to meditation training and at least one major ‘side effect’ of the doing it so intensively on a silent retreat. Firstly you are improving your attention and secondly you are getting better at non-judgmentally observing yourself. One consequence of the extended silence and intense meditation of a retreat is that you dramatically damp down the usual hubbub in your head and start to notice things that you thought you’d forgotten. It is the combination of these that makes a retreat into a kind of therapy, although that is too modern a term.

The scientific community believe that meditation trains two complementary traits; focused attention and open monitoring. Focused attention is clearly a good thing to have:

“the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgment, character, and will. . . . An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

William James, 1890

Know thyself

With better control of your attention you are able to sit and calmly observe your own thoughts. Watching thoughts as they unfold without a rush to judgement can actually change your ways of thinking. People get stuck in ruts. They get very comfortable and very practiced at responding mentally in particular ways. Asked why we do something we often very quick to claim we know the answer. We think we know our own minds and as we get older this confidence increases. In a large part the confidence is not misplaced. We do know ourselves quite well. But a lot of our explanations for why we do things is simply wrong. Calling these ‘defence mechanisms’ is too judgmental. But it is these bad habits of thought that meditation helps break down.

In the computer modelling world, where we train neural-networks to learn like people, we also encounter this problem when our models get stuck in ‘local minima’ or attractor basins. Imagine a shallow crater high up in middle of some massive, mountainous undulating sand-dunes. Now imagine you are a rabbit. (Bear with me this is going somewhere). If you are a rabbit who’s lived in that environment all your life you might imagine that this gully is the best place on earth. Sure the air is thin, the ground is cold and the grass is tough but it is least bad place you know so why would you go anywhere else. It’s a comfortable place to be and all in your experience it is the best choice there is. Our computers can occasionally think like this and once they get stuck in these gullies they won’t move of their own free will (never mind for now what i mean by that!)

From where programmers are standing with our God’s eye view we can see a lush valley just over those ridges. But we need to persuade our networks to explore a bit more. One way can be to throw more experience at them, but if they’ve backed themselves into a deep depression, every alternative faces uphill so there’s no obvious reason to change. Another more radical option, only open to Gods, is to give the whole environment a shake. The landscape will shift and now maybe there’s a path down from that little local oasis in the foothills to far richer plains beyond. In neural-network land, this is process is called ‘simulated annealing’. We literally shake our models out of their complacency. And doing so increases the depth of their understanding.

Meditation is a lot like that.

By quieting the mind you are not reinforcing the usual peaks and troughs of your emotion, you are not falling into your usual traps. Very gradually you are reshaping the landscape of your mind and as you do that you get to explore a wider range of its territory.

I’m very glad I went but I’m not sure about recommending it. In fact, for most people I wouldn’t recommend it. If the idea of 10 days silence and hard work appeals to you, then go for it. It’s free. The instruction is given away to anyone who wants it. One nice clue that this is NOT A CULT 🙂

Don’t expect miracles. Do expect insight.

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